A View of the Knesset and of Changing Israeli Society

Jun 01

The Knesset building (Israeli Parliament) looms prominent on the hill opposite my Jerusalem apartment (see photo taken from my balcony).   My view of the seat of the Israeli government reminds me that Americans whom I’ve heard express hostility toward Israel usually make two major complaints:

1.  The unresolved Palestinian issue/“Occupation”/settlements, and/or

2.  Orthodox control of various facets of Israeli life.   

Regrettably, too often, especially among Jews, these criticisms reflect a degree of alienation from and disinterest in the ancient and modern Jewish homeland.

Yet three recent developments in the building across from me warrant, I hope and feel, reengagement and optimism by those making these criticisms.   

First, the surprising joining of political forces of the Netanyahu government (Likud) with its leading opposition (Kadima) has suddenly created an unprecedented coalition that greatly diminishes the disproportionate Orthodox “kingmaker” role. 

Second, that new coalition has resulted in the elevation of Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich to opposition leader.  Yacimovich and Labor espouse a liberal agenda on many fronts.  These include the end of exclusive religious jurisdiction over life-cycle events, expanded civil service for Israeli Arabs, a drastic reduction in the number of yeshiva student military service exemptions, increased Orthodox participation into the workforce – and peace with the Palestinians via a return to 1967 armistice lines, with preservation of settlement blocs and territorial exchanges.

Third, the Israel Government has officially recognized non-Orthodox regional council rabbis as such, and will pay them the same government salary as Orthodox (regional council) rabbis.  Many here see this as an initial, watershed development toward official religious pluralism in Israel.

None of these events portends immediate radical change, and indeed, such may not occur here for decades.  Yet, it seems undeniable that these (and many other) developments demonstrate that many Israelis share the views of the aforementioned disaffected/hostile Americans -- and their voices are increasingly acknowledged in political and social arenas here.   

This means that even American Jews who adamantly disagree with Israeli government policies need not and should not turn away from Israel nor give up on it as hopelessly [pick adjective(s)]: conservative, oppressive, racist, Orthodox controlled, etc.  Israeli society and politics are far more diverse and dynamic than blanket criticism warrant. 

Rather, whatever their politics and sentiments, American Jews should feel encouraged and emboldened to re-engage with Israel, its people, and its tumultuous society.  Critics can easily find prominent standard-bearers to advance their positions and causes. 

Horace Mann, the “Father of Public Education” in American, reputedly said:  “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.   Or, as a flyer of the East Timor group “Friends of Same” put it: 

If you give me a fish you have fed me for a day.  If you teach me to fish you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline is seized for development.  But if you teach me to organize, then whatever the challenges I can join together with my peers and we will fashion a solution.  

I call on all friends of Israel, of whatever religious or political persuasion, to get involved with Israel’s present and future. 

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  • A View of the Knesset and of Changing Israeli Society

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